Best of: Summer Reading 2015

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For years, summer was the time I was able to read the most, and I’ve been meticulously documenting my summer reading for years. Now that there’s no school to segregate summer reading as a separate entity, I tend to instead track my reading by the month and by the year. Except this year, where I’ve been planning out my reading per season as well (although I am constantly changing and updating my plans, of course). And even though summer doesn’t mean a break anymore, a long stretch of uninterrupted reading, there’s still something special about reading in the sunshine. So here are my top five summer reads of 2015, in no particular order (again, these aren’t books necessarily published this summer, just my personal summer reading highlights–but I do highly recommend them all as unconventional beach reads!):

  1. The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin: I love books that are unique. Books that can surprise me by circumventing or challenging established genre tropes, or that immerse you completely in a world that isn’t like anything you’ve read about before. The Fifth Season does this extremely successfully. It takes place in the Stillness, a world named ironically, since it suffers devastating disaster events with relative frequency. Its civilizations have developed to survive these events (volcanoes, epidemics, earthquakes, etc) and this shapes both historical precedents and daily life. N.K. Jemisin’s worldbuilding continuously impresses me with every book of hers that I read–it’s just so well thought out. She doesn’t just tell you, hey, this is what this particular culture/island/city is like–she shows you why it developed that way by providing historical and political context. I don’t want to summarize or spoil the plot, but I will say this: the book begins by telling you that “This is the way the world ends. For the last time.” It only gets more intriguing from there. There are people with powers to control the earth, who are feared and hated by the general population; an empire that expanded despite the continuous extinction setbacks; mysterious beings referred to as “stone eaters,” survivalist texts that take on an almost religious significance; and hidden mysteries underlying all of it. If you like fantasy with great worldbuilding, that has realistic characters in a fantastically destructive setting, then I highly recommend this book.
  2. Ragnarok: The End of the Gods by A.S. Byatt: A thin child living in the English countryside during World War II, too young to fully comprehend the war that is consuming her world and that has taken her father away to fight, reads a book about Norse mythology that helps her to comprehend the horrors occurring far away in her world. It’s part historical fiction, part mythology retelling, and part philosophy. I’m honestly not sure why it’s gotten such low ratings; personally, I was blown away by Byatt’s prose. It’s simple on the surface but has so much depth. I loved the parallels that were drawn between the modern world and the world of Asgard: Byatt doesn’t throw it in the reader’s face, but lets you draw your own conclusions. It’s about the purpose that myths serve humans, how they shape our world, and how they can help us ultimately better understand it.
  3. Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell: I’ve been meaning to read this book for approximately forever. Intertwined narratives, ranging in genre from historical fiction to scifi? I’m completely on board. I was really impressed with Mitchell’s range as a writer; if I didn’t know better, I’d be entirely convinced that each section in Cloud Atlas was written by a different author. The only issue I had was that I liked some of the stories much better than the others (one in particular I absolutely hated). I did, however, really enjoy the challenging aspect of picking up on the subtle ways in which the stories intersected, and I was a big fan of the creativity of not just the book’s structure but the individual stories as well.
  4. All is Forgotten, Nothing is Lost by Lan Samantha Chang: This is a fantastic book for English and Writing majors, anyone who has spent time workshopping pieces of their writing, and for writers and poets in general. It’s subtle and beautiful, and it meditates on the nature of writing, success, creativity, and love. It spends a great deal of time exploring the question of whether writing can truly be taught, and whether an individual’s writing ever truly improves.
  5. Smoke and Mirrors by Neil Gaiman: In the past I’ve struggled to finish short story collections–not because they weren’t good, but because each story was so emotional and like a mini-book that I needed time to recover before moving onto the next one. Smoke and Mirrors isn’t like that. Each story is well-done and resonates in a different way, but after you finish one you crave more, so that you keep promising yourself you’ll only read one more before you go to sleep. And then you think, oh, but the next one sounds really good…Smoke and Mirrors has the loose theme of illusion, but the stories are all very different. There’s a lot of fantasy, some horror, and even a bit of science fiction, which I haven’t really seen from Gaiman in the past. There’s also a god variety in formatting: some stories are extremely short, others are a bit longer, and there are also a bunch of poems–some short, some longer and narrative. Some of my favorite stories were: “Changes”–a science fiction story about a scientist who discovers a cure for cancer, but doesn’t realize the profound consequences of the drug’s side effect of switching the patient’s gender; “We Can Get Them For You Wholesale”–a creepy cautionary tale about bargains; “Murder Mysteries”–about a murder mystery involving angels; “Only the End of the World Again”–reminded me of American Gods, in a good way; and “The Goldfish Pool and Other Stories”–an English writer goes to Hollywood to adapt his bestselling novel. I also love that Gaiman includes an introduction (with a hidden short story inside!) that discusses each story individually. He explains his inspiration for the stories, where they originally appeared, and how he feels about them putting together this collection years later. I liked getting the writer’s perspective on his own work and hearing about how he gets his creative ideas. I didn’t love every single story in here–particularly toward the end, some felt weaker to me, but overall it was great.

Library Book Sale Buying Binge, Part 3

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I found eight gorgeous hardcovers at a local library book sale recently. I love that I never find anything I expect at library book sales, but the books I do find are always an amazing surprise.

To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis: I read Doomsday Book, Willis’s work about a time-traveling historian accidentally transported to the Middle Ages at the height of the Black Death, last fall. It was interesting, but extremely dark in tone–this book is supposedly lighter, while keeping the time traveling concept consistent.

Me Before You by Jojo Moyes: I don’t really know much about this book, but I had seen it talked about on Goodreads and thought it might be a good end-of-summer read. From what I’ve heard, it’s a romance that induces copious amounts of tears. I feel like nothing could possibly make me ugly-cry more than The Fault in Our Stars, but I’m up for the challenge.

The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith: I haven’t read any of J.K. Rowling’s post-Harry Potter books yet, but I think this will be a good start. I like a good mystery every once in awhile…just not too often, or I get tired of them.

The Gone-Away World by Nick Harkaway: I don’t remember how I heard about this book, but I’ve been looking for it at bookstores and library book sales for a couple of years now and I never find it. Sure, I could just buy it online, but I like the thrill of the chase! It sounds delightfully weird and I can’t wait to start it.

The Children’s Book by A.S. Byatt: I recently read Byatt’s Ragnarok, and it was one of the best books I’ve read all year (review coming soon!). This book, which was shortlisted for the Man Booker, centers around a children’s book author in Victorian/World War I-era England.

What I Didn’t See by Karen Joy Fowler: Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves was one of the best-written and most emotional reads for me this year, and her collection of earlier short stories is supposed to be wonderfully weird.

Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh: I found this in a used bookstore a few years ago, but at the time thought it was too expensive to buy (it was maybe $8…haha). I held off and found it for $0.50 at this sale, so I guess the wait paid off!

The Round House by Louise Erdrich: Erdrich is coming to speak in my city later this year, and I’d like to get more familiar with her writing before she comes. This won the National Book Award a few years ago.

A Year in Bookmarks

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Although I love my library used book sales (as my massive book hauls and upcoming post illustrate), I also love checking out local independent bookstores. This year I was lucky enough to visit eight independent bookstores, and collected bookmarks along with the books I found there. I love finding new spaces to explore, and finding hidden gems within those spaces.

Library Book Sale Buying Binge Part 2!

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I went to another library book sale (I’m seriously impressed with the number of library book sales they have in my area!) and had a very, very good book buying day. If you can’t tell, I’m trying to build up my bookshelf, and I have a weakness for reasonably-priced used books. Here’s what I picked up:

Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut: science fiction classic that I remember reading in the library in high school. I’ve been wanting to do a reread since then–I remember the haunting feeling while reading it, but not the specifics.

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury: ditto on wanting to do a reread. I have stronger memories of the terrible, terrible movie version that I saw than of the book, which is just not okay.

The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury: one of my all-time favorites. It’s a series of short stories and all of them are haunting and beautiful and magical. I want to reread them and then rereread them, since it’s been awhile!

And as for books I haven’t read:

The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes: this was on a list of highly recommended short novels I found. Sometimes you need a good short book to break up the more epic ones.

The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros: ditto!

Sula and The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison: Beloved is one of the most amazing books I’ve ever read. Incredible, heart-wrenching, profound, disturbing, makes you sob when you read it. I keep meaning to read more of her work and haven’t yet–so now I will.

The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson: fiction, won the Pulitzer Prize, and about a North Korean soldier. I’m interested to see how this one is.

Infidel by Ayaan Hirsi Ali: I like to mix up my fiction with some nonfiction, and this comes highly recommended.

Beach Read Rec: Station Eleven IS Science Fiction

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Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven has generated a lot of buzz–not only because it’s well-written, which it is, or because it was nominated for the National Book Award (and the PEN/Faulkner Award, and the Arthur C. Clarke Award), but also because of its author’s take on its genre. Back in October, she ignited controversy by tweeting “I actually don’t think of Station Eleven as sci-fi, but am fully prepared to concede that I may be alone in this….”

In and of itself, it’s a fairly innocuous tweet. It’s an author talking about her own work, and expressing an opinion while acknowledging the opinions of others. She followed it up by telling the Washington Post, “My only objection to these categories is that when you have a book like mine that doesn’t fit neatly into any category, there’s a real risk that readers who only read ‘literary fiction’ won’t pick it up because they think they couldn’t possibly like sci-fi, while sci-fi readers will pick up the book based on the sci-fi categorization, and then be disappointed because the book isn’t sci-fi enough.”

My problem is this: when an author says that their work is “literary fiction,” what they really tend to mean is that it’s well-written. The idea that something can’t be science fiction because it’s “literary,” then, doesn’t make sense to me, because that would mean that science fiction itself is inherently not literary; that it occupies a rung below realistic fiction in terms of quality. And not only is that inaccurate, but it’s offensive to science fiction writers and readers alike. It minimizes the profound works of science fiction writers like Octavia Butler and Ursula LeGuin, and it alienates readers who are drawn towards science fiction concepts with complex characters and intricate plots. Lately, so many authors are working to push genre boundaries and create transcendent, well-written works that are unique in story and technique

This being said, I do think that Station Eleven would make a great unconventional beach read. The format of several intertwining stories keeps the action fresh if you’re reading for long periods of time–to summarize briefly, the story revolves around three main characters: Arthur, a Hollywood star who dies of a heart attack while performing King Lear on the eve of a flu pandemic; Jeevan, a paparazzi-turned-paramedic who attempts to resuscitate him; and Kirsten, a former child actress who grows up traveling with a Shakespeare company in post-flu America. There are sequences that take place before, during, and after the outbreak of the Georgia flu, which originates in Russia but soon spreads globally to decimate the global population and create a new world made up of small, isolated communities. The post-flu sections with Kirsten were some of my favorites: the writing is dreamlike and the terrain, and action, feels somewhat surreal. I also loved the plot thread describing where the novel’s title originates from: that of a graphic novel called Station Eleven depicting life on a planet-sized space station far from Earth. I found the reading experience to be itself both isolating and surreal, and in that way very, very beautiful. My only criticisms would be that I didn’t feel that Kirsten’s character was explored in the depth that it could have been, and I honestly think that the book could have been significantly longer and still retained its impact.

Overall, it was at least an 8 out of 10 for me. And I maintain that it IS science fiction–science fiction that’s well-written. Which is exactly how I like my science fiction.

Library Book Sale Buying Binge

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This post is in celebration of most recent library book sale haul. I love going to library book sales–they’re a great way to find an excellent selection of books for extremely reduced prices. The six books I found above cost a total of $8, and all were new or like-new quality. Even better (or at least almost as good) as the books that you bring home from library book sales is the experience of searching, sorting through boxes of books donated by library members to find the hidden gems. I love finding books I recognize, even if I don’t end up buying them–and I love finding books I’ve never heard of to take home as well. This time I found:

The Monsters of Templeton by Lauren Goff — about a young woman returning to her hometown in Upstate New York and uncovering its secrets, some of which are supernatural. I’d heard of this one but didn’t remember it in detail, and love the intriguing premise.

The Jane Austen Book Club by Karen Joy Fowler — Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves was one of my favorite reads of 2015 so far, and I’m interested what she does with the concept of a book club reading Jane Austen.

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn — I read Gone Girl last year and found it addicting, intricate, and surprising. I initially had checked it out from the library, but when i saw it I couldn’t resist getting a copy for my shelf for re-reading purposes.

The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri — I’ve read a lot of Lahiri’s short stories and I believe that she is one of the best writers out there today. Her stories are always entrancing, so I’m interested to read her full-length novel.

Possession by A.S. Byatt — I’ve heard this is a challenging read for lovers of literature. I’d like to be up to the challenge!

Invitation to a Beheading by Vladimir Nabokov — Less well known than Lolita, this work is supposedly more surrealist than realistic.

I write about nontraditional beach reads for nontraditional readers